By Patricia B. Mirasol, Reporter

TELEHEALTH businesses in the Philippines, especially those focused on mental healthcare, are poised for significant growth opportunities even as the pandemic wanes, according to telemental health service provider Mindcare Club.

“The demand for our services skyrocketed in June 2021 because of another lockdown in the country,” said Christine C. Rodriguez, head of operations at Mindcare Club, in an interview with BusinessWorld on Aug. 1.

During that month, the company, which was launched in 2020, had around 600 patients seeking help, she noted.

She also said that Mindcare Club now averages between 450 to 500 patients per month, with no signs of decline.

The sustained demand suggests a promising future for telehealth providers in the mental healthcare sector in the Philippines.

“There is a continuous stream of new patients replacing old ones, and from an operational standpoint, the demand will not wane — especially with the still-heavy traffic in the metro,” Ms. Rodriguez said.

She added that face-to-face is necessary in pediatric psychiatry but not in general adult psychiatry. 

Remote care was initially used to offer medical assistance in remote and underserved rural regions. However, with the occurrence of pandemics like SARS in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2013, digital technology became increasingly employed for healthcare purposes.

“During COVID-19, member states in different stages of digital health transformation are all more engaged in telemedicine implementation,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a 2020 report.

There are 3.3 million Filipinos who suffer from depressive disorders, the Health department said in 2019.

The WHO has reported a deficiency of psychiatric professionals in the Philippines, with just 548 psychiatrists available for every 100,000 individuals, and only 133 psychologists for the same population size.

The availability of psychosocial or psychological interventions through local government health services is generally limited, the WHO noted.

A 2021 mental health investment case for the Philippines, launched by the Department of Health (DoH) and the United Nations in 2021, revealed that mental health conditions incur an annual cost of P68.9 billion to the Philippine economy, which is equivalent to 0.4% of its gross domestic product.

Prophecy Market Insights, a market research company, forecasts that the worldwide mental health market will reach approximately $527.44 billion by 2030, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 3.40%.

Private mental health providers in the Philippines offer a range of services, including one-on-one consultations, couples therapy, family therapy, parent-coaching sessions, wellness seminars, corporate mental health programs, and clinical psychological assessments. They also provide programs to address concerns like insomnia, depression, substance abuse, domestic abuse, and trauma.

Mindcare Club employs online video conferencing for treatment and therapy sessions. It offers its First Step session at P1,500, while its Next Step sessions range from P2,500 to P5,000 each.

Other mental health providers in the Philippines include Better Steps Psychology, In Touch Community Services, Argao Center for Psychological Services, VMG Professionals PH, and Recovery Hub Philippines.

The service aims to offer the convenience of seeing a doctor without enduring long hours of traffic, said Maria Luz S. Casimiro-Querubin, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer of Mindcare Club, in a separate interview.

She also noted that the outskirts are currently underserved in terms of such services. According to the National Telehealth Center at the University of the Philippines-Manila, people in the countryside who struggle to buy smartphones and have poor internet access are barriers to telemedicine adoption.

As per Ms. Rodriguez, the company plans to expand its territory within five years by targeting overseas Filipino workers.

She said, “Like people who go to Canada and New Zealand, they’re still adjusting and aren’t covered by health insurance there. Additionally, they might not be comfortable seeing foreign counselors.”

“That’s the five-year plan of Mindcare Club — to expand in the Asia-Pacific region.”

A challenge in the space is providing quality service while being mindful of the needs of one’s market.

While counseling services for mental health grew during the pandemic, it also opened the floodgates for the lack of ethics of care, Ms. Querubin said.

“I must still highlight the ethics of the profession. If you’re going to enter this space, make sure that the people who will provide [the service] are credible and licensed, because the other person facing you is a person needing help,” she said.

Some companies who charge less than a cup of good coffee, she said, are able to do so because the service is “provided by people who haven’t fulfilled the credentials.”

“The DoH is not on top of it, [and]… no one is regulating the space,” she noted. “The patients would have to do some research on the providers. What is their batting average? What are the outcomes?”

Data privacy is also of utmost importance.

“Let us not shortchange the people who will trust us and have us listen to our narratives. That’s why how you keep the notes is important. The confidentiality, the element of trust that goes into consultation, is precious,” Ms. Querubin said.

A third challenge, she added, is matching the market need with making it financially sustainable.

“It’s not very different from running a clinic or running a hospital. You have to be able to understand how to make the process or service run efficiently, with very good results, and — at the same time — make it sustainable,” she said.